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When you pull over to the side of the road to take a leak, you case the scene like the petty criminal you are. You check for cops. And before you lift your leg, you take a quick inventory of the cars and people around you. It’s an innocent ritual.
When Patrick Knowlton went through this ritual at Fort Marcy Park on a steamy day in July 1993, he noticed a couple of cars in the parking lot, a dark-skinned man who cast an icy glare at him, and an unoccupied brown Honda with Arkansas tags next to his car. Two hours after he answered nature’s call, park police would discover the lifeless body of Clinton aide Vince Foster in his brown Honda in the same park. Knowlton would later draw his preleak portrait of Fort Marcy Park to the park police, the FBI, and eventually to a grand jury entrusted with investigating Foster’s death and its pseudo-scandalous backdrop, the Whitewater case.
Initially, Knowlton viewed his oddly timed visit to Fort Marcy as nothing more than curious material for a cocktail chat. “It was interesting to talk about,” says Knowlton, a Syracuse, N.Y., native who moved to the District in 1990. “I’m taking a piss, and Vince Foster’s probably lying there dead.”
But that was before he was called in twice by the FBI, whose agents pressed him on what he had seen in the brown Honda. It was also before Knowlton, a building contractor, was tracked down by a London Telegraph reporter with a copy of the FBI report that contained his testimony.
Still, it wasn’t until the night Knowlton received his grand jury subpoena that he realized that he had joined Al D’Amato and the Clintons in the depths of the Whitewater morass. On a short walk from his Pennsylvania Avenue apartment to a Dupont Circle restaurant, Knowlton and his girlfriend noticed a man dressed in a brown suit walking slowly toward them, staring directly into Knowlton’s eyes. As he passed, the man stopped and started to talk into his shirt sleeve. Another man followed, seconds later, giving Knowlton an eerie, hostile stare. Then another. And another. By the time he returned home, Knowlton had counted 13 such encounters.
“When he first told me about it [the harassment], I thought that he was just under some stress, and was paranoid about it,” says Chris Ruddy, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review who had been assigned full-time to the Whitewater case. So Ruddy agreed to accompany Knowlton on one of his routine neighborhood walks. Ruddy recalls that once they hit the street, Knowlton quickly attracted the attention of poker-faced men dressed in suits. “There was a man that first caught my attention across the street that looked at us…. He made his way diagonally across the street to intercept us when we hit the other curb on the sidewalk,” says Ruddy. “When he did, his head visibly shook when he looked at Knowlton. This was repeated many times, when people would just stare at him. It looked to me like it was a concerted effort to harass him.” Twelve other men gave Knowlton ominous stares that afternoon. “It was clear to me that they were trailing him or trying to intimidate him,” Ruddy said. “He seemed sickened…. He seemed physically ill.” Knowlton got the message: “They did a real good job of scaring the hell out of me,” he says.
Knowlton felt as if he’d become part of a bad Hitchcock movie. “I still question myself today,” he says, sitting comfortably in his studio apartment. “Did it really happen?”
To prove that it did, Knowlton and his lawyer, John H. Clarke, compiled a 144-page “Report of Witness Tampering.” In exhaustive detail the report chronicles every instance of harassment Knowlton has sustained since his visit to Fort Marcy Park.
In addition to documenting the harassment, the report provides something else critical to Knowlton’s case: proof that he’s not a wacko. Specifically, it includes the results of a polygraph test, a memory test administered by a psychologist, and a psychiatric report. “We needed to put out the report to establish Patrick’s credibility,” Clarke argues. The report, which Knowlton says cost $27,000, was sent in March to the Office of Independent Counsel as well as D’Amato’s Whitewater committee, and made available to the public at Capitol Hill Books and through a toll-free number.
Knowlton does not speculate on who his tormenters are. Could it be that the whole scheme has been cooked up by reporters in an effort to sell papers, as the FBI suggested to Knowlton? Are these strange men hired by conservative foundations in a campaign to smear the president? Are they free-lance low-level surveillance experts retained by the FBI to attempt to discredit Knowlton and make him look like a paranoid nut?
To make matters worse, Knowlton became a punching bag for federal prosecutors when he gave his grand jury testimony. Instead of focusing on what Knowlton saw at the park, the prosecutors challenged his character and credibility and attacked his motives for coming forth. They even insinuated that Knowlton had lied about his reason for being at Fort Marcy, implying that he was there for a homosexual liaison. They questioned him about the alleged harassment, suggesting that Knowlton had invented that as well. The Office of Independent Counsel, through spokesperson Debbie Gershman, refused to comment on Knowlton’s testimony because of the office’s ongoing investigation. “They treated me very shabbily,” Knowlton complains. “They were very deceiving. They tried to defame me.”
“He’s just a witness,” says Clarke. “But he’s been forced to defend himself.”
Knowlton and his lawyer refuse to comment on the next step in their campaign to unmask and bring to justice Knowlton’s tormentors. However, they hope that the publicity stemming from the report will compel the Whitewater establishment to investigate the matter.
Knowlton’s report is a dream come true for the crowd of theorists, pundits, and fame seekers who insist that Foster’s death is part of a nefarious conspiracy. On the Internet, rumors about Foster’s demise are exchanged at least as often as illicit pornography, and Knowlton’s name is familiar to those who trade in the Foster scuttlebutt. News of Knowlton’s harassment shows up in places like “Pete Celano’s Extremist Home Page” (www.alliance.net/celano19) and alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater, where hardened conspiracy theorists consider the possibility that Foster was killed by the Israeli secret service because he was about to confess his role in an international money-laundering scheme that dates back to the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis.
Knowlton has little appetite for such theories. “It was all this bizarre stuff, just out of the realm of my reality,” he says. “I was just a normal guy, you know. I wasn’t expecting all this attention.”
But still he gets it. The mysterious men still follow him around his Washington Circle neighborhood, to the point that looking over his shoulder has become instinctive for Knowlton. “I don’t go out as much as I used to,” he says. “My sleeping is not as good anymore, either.”
“Am I overreacting?” Knowlton wonders as he lounges in his apartment. His ordeal, however, may be just beginning: The Office of Independent Counsel is preparing to reopen the investigation into Foster’s death with the appointment of a special homicide investigator. To be sure, Knowlton has no control over how the Foster inquiry will progress.
Nor does he know where this odyssey will end. But the next time he’s on the road and gets the urge, he’ll keep driving until he finds a bathroom.—Eric Friedman